George C. Scott knew he’d receive an Oscar nomination for Patton & instead won the Oscar for Best Actor in the 43rd Academy Awards. Instead of attending, he spent the night watching a game of hockey. He said, “[they were] a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons”. If Scott didn’t pass away in 1999, he might’ve named a movie that would support his view. I imagine Chococat would pop into mind.
What was Lasse Hallstrom thinking when he made this ponderous trash? He’s a leading proponent in contemporary Swedish cinema. His Swedish work was accomplished enough that he received offers to break into the Hollywood scene, which he accepted. His directorial credits include What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Something To Talk About & Casanova. Yet in 1999, he decided to create a film adaptation of a novel by a relative unknown named Joanne Harris. The movie is Chocolat & the movie begs the question: why did Hallstrom make rubbish designed for the Oscars? The paycheck? I imagine it would be substantial.
The story is infinitely underwritten. It begins with an opening crane shot of a vintage French village. The villagers are in church. A gust of wind appears, hereby foregrounding a change in events. As we expect, there are two strangers walking against its direction, covered in red cloth, the cheap sort you’d find in a Best & Less store. 5 minutes in & already the clichés are rolling in. Hallstrom has overexaggerated shots marred by symbolism; the sort that has as much imagination as an exploitation movie.
VIanne Rocher (the mother, played by Juliette Binoche) & Anouk (the daughter, played by Victoire Thivisol) arrive at the village to begin their family-old tradition: selling chocolate. Nice timing. They just happen to arrive when the village is celebrating Lent. They experience challenges: trying to sell their chocolate in a village with a dominant Christian theology. The other: trying to overrule the influence of Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), a devout village mayor who bans moral relativism with an equal balance in authoritarian control. Chocolat is essentially a battle between radicalism & conservatism, a power struggle between the law & the innovator & a ‘supposedly’ unbiased view of whose good & who’s bad. Isn’t it convenient that they arrive at Lent? That a conflict will almost surely arise? Where’s the originality when we can predict every action? I mean, we’ve been here & done that before. We know Vianne is going to win & Comte is going to suffer an emotional breakdown. He will relinquish command & the villagers will celebrate the festivities because it’s impossible to resist chocolate when it acts like Viagra.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano”. Well, the next time Hallstrom plays, he better do some tuning in.
The movie sinks lower & lower. The paganism vs. Christianity war deepens when Josephine (Lena Olin) pleads refuge to Vianne after her husband Serge (Peter Stormare) conveniently demonstrates domestic violence to his living wife; possibly as a show of male superiority. Then you have the Roux character (Johnny Depp) who leads a band of gypsies, shacking out near the village before they continue their descent. Of course, Vianne falls in love with Roux (reason: it’s Johnny Depp) while he meets the friendly village. In fact, Vianne realizes that Comte’s regime has inspired a network of suffering. You have an ex-soldier who whimsies a widow but is too afraid to make the moves because of Comte & his Christian teachings. Vianne’s daughter is mocked by her colleagues. A wife so desperately wants sex but the husband is too transfixed on the tube. Then you have the abusive husband who is punished lightly by the Comte; obviously destined for failure. He tries to express his love to Josephine; as expected, she adamantly rejects. Hours later, he presents another vile demonstration of male chauvinism. There is a subtle touch of irony here & surprisingly, it works. This evokes another irony.
If Hallstrom isn’t going to add anything new, he must at least make the characters compelling. But no, he makes them more predictable by the unbearable minute. Juliette Binoche was in The Unbearable Light of Darkness & The Three Colours Trilogy. Enough said: she is a magnificent actress. Johnny Depp is handsome, charming & mysterious; what a pity his performance is worthless. His roles are versatile, ego-driven & abundant with vigour. His mastery of the charismatic personality deserves comparisons to Peter Sellers but here, he deserves comparisons to Robert Pattinson.
With Tommy Lee Jones & Charlize Theron, Paul Haggis made In the Valley of Elah. Unlike Chocolat, it’s compelling because it’s void of new insights & yet Haggis devours us into a tomb of dread; dread over war’s implications & an elaborate labyrinth of lies; acknowledged by its most painful victim. Chocolat isn’t excusable; it’s Oscar rubbish that uses a talented director & subordinates his talents for commercial appeal. It has no stroke of ingenuity, no scent of imagination nor does it have the guts to go inside the depths. It has no heart. This leads to another dilemma: the Oscars.
The Academy Awards are nominated by a group of members who have connections with the entertainment industry. Their recognition is dependent on their credentials & their achievements in the cinema. Even then, the nominations for the group are like a popularity contest; some do not deserve the privilege. The group has neither film aficionados nor academics who know their business. Plus, the significance of the Oscars has diminished by time. In 1977, why did Annie Hall win the Oscar for Best Picture when every child, adolescent & parent only watch movies since Star Wars? Why don’t the Academy members nominate actors from science-fiction/action movies? Who remembers Best Picture winners like Going My Way, How Green Was My Valley, The Great Ziegfeld, Ordinary People & Oliver!? The Oscars seem to discriminate & even renowned director William Friedkin (whose directorial credits include The French Connection & The Exorcist) plainly characterized the Academy Awards as, “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry has ever devised for itself”. Remember, Chocolat received 5 Oscar nominations.
Chocolat is like a combination of jigsaw pieces. They don’t fit because the pieces are mixed in an assortment of puzzles, around 9 more than necessary. The piece’s only commonality is their superficiality. The screenplay could’ve been written by a naïve 5 year old who wanted to learn how to write on a summer afternoon. Maybe the actors wanted a change of scenery. There’s no doubt that the production of Chocolat showcases beautiful locales. The film’s only credit is its exquisite cinematography. But when the essence of beauty is instilled in Pride & Prejudice, Blade Runner & House of Flying Daggers to perfection, you may realize that the beauty is designed to transcend its characters; enhance their surroundings & make you wonder why the foreground is as it is. This is a demonstration of intelligence. Change Pauline Kael’s comments on The Sound of Music & apply it for Chocolat because it’s, “the sugar coated lie people seem to want to eat”.
Words of advice: if you see this on TV, change the channel. Watch Sesame Street instead. It’s more intelligent.